Close-Up: Live Issue - Is online digital creative reachingmaturity?

Last week's Campaign Digital Awards shon a spotlight on the industry's creative strengths and weaknesses.

There can be few internet users who, at some stage in their online lives, haven't become enraged by the presence of a persistent pop-up ad devoid of creativity or apparent purpose.

Pop-ups proclaiming "you're a winner" which refused to pop back down again defined early online advertising and went a long way to building the perception that the digital advertising industry was immature, uncreative and unburdened by clients that had any real money to spend.

No longer, though. Figures from the Internet Advertising Bureau and PricewaterhouseCoopers now predict a UK online spend of £1 billion by the end of the year, making the sector larger than outdoor. And as last week's Campaign Digital Awards demonstrated, the kind of creativity and talent is emerging that can take the industry further.

There was an overriding sense of optimism among the entrants and an overall feeling that the industry is in the middle of a period of unparalleled growth. And alongside the usual mixture of wine, food and awards, there was a traditional dose of mutual backslapping. But, unlike some above-the-line awards nights, this didn't turn into backstabbing.

"Unlike in other media, there is a definite camaraderie in this industry and the evening was a reflection of that," Mark Cridge, the glue London managing director, who was not only the jury chairman but also scooped the Digital Achiever of the Year award, says.

"We've all grown together and we've been working together in fighting a common enemy and changing the perception of our industry for so long, that we're all just friends. It's a difficult task convincing marketers of the benefits of spending money on digital."

Flo Heiss, the Dare creative director, who took home four silver awards and one commendation for work on Axe deodorant and Wanadoo Broadband, believes that the industry is vastly improving and rapidly maturing, both creatively and in business terms. He argues this is a belief not just held by insiders, but also by a growing number of clients.

"We're not just the geeks that live in the basement anymore. We take our work very seriously and are starting to deliver results for our brands. Clients are beginning to look for new creative ideas and we are providing them."

The inaugural awards accepted work up to 18 months old, giving the judges a good view of how the creative bar has been raised over the period. All were surprised at the speed of the improvement, particularly in the past six months.

"Over the next two years, the number and quality of great campaigns is going to explode. Instead of the awards going to two or three agencies, they will be spread around 15 or 16," predicts Paul Banham, the creative director at Agency.com, whose company won the Best Digital Campaign award for its NSPCC "someone to turn to" work, a silver for Best Charity Campaign and a commendation for its Dulux work. "The competition to put out good creative is intense now and it's pushing everyone to create great work," he adds.

That said, the awards weren't merely an exercise in praising work merely because it was entered. The jury was aware that its decisions would be held up to scrutiny by a wider advertising audience, and consequently, chose to withhold silver awards in two categories.

"The panel of judges was sophisticated and really looked for merit in the work," says judge Sam Ball, the creative director at Lean Mean Fighting Machine, who, with his partner Dave Bedwood, won the Young Digital Achiever of the Year award. "Our industry will be judged on the work in these awards, so we have to make sure it's absolutely the best. There is no point in awarding something just because it was entered."

Two campaigns took the lion's share of the awards and were lauded by the judges above all others: Agency.com's "someone to turn to" for the NSPCC, and Dare's "feather", for the Unilever deodorant brand Axe, which took home the awards for Best Viral, Best International Campaign and Best Health & Beauty Campaign.

The two were very different concepts for very different brands, but both pushed the boundaries of what can be achieved in digital advertising.

"Someone to turn to" overlayed animated footage of children on various websites, accompanying the images with messages such as: "If you were her, where would you look for help?" Each execution had a different message, tailored to the site it was running on.

"Feather" was a branding exercise aimed at rewarding subscribers who had signed up to an Axe mailing list. An altogether more frivolous campaign, it allowed web users to "tickle" a girl lying on a bed with a "digital" feather.

"The Axe work really seemed to capture people's imaginations," Heiss says. "It's such a simple idea, and that's why it works. We spent a lot of time making sure the video looked good. This work proves that, because clients are becoming accustomed to the medium, they are willing to spend more money."

They're also getting more for their investment. With exponential growth of computer power and broadband subscriptions increasing, digital agencies are finding more and more ways of increasing the creativity in their work.

Banham points to his agency's work for the NSPCC as an example of how technology has changed: "The work was created quite a while ago, and when we did it, the amount of file space you could use online was so much less than now. This meant we were constantly finding new ways to make sure we could get the idea up and running."

Although it is evident that digital's creative muscle has grown, there's a strong feeling that this is only the beginning.

"The best work is still to come," Cridge says. "With the right creative people, client investment and the best technology, the work will go from strength to strength. There was a sense of fear after the dotcom crash and people stopped taking risks; this has all changed and there is a massive confidence in the industry now."